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Lyn Gardner: Regional theatres are not a training ground for London

Adrian Scarborough in The Madness of George III at Nottingham Playhouse. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Adrian Scarborough’s assertion that London-based actors should commit to more work away from the capital to help support regional theatre is both right and wrong.

I’m in no doubt that this fine actor’s words came straight from the heart, but there is also a whiff of condescension about it that I am sure was never intended. It perpetuates the myth that actors and creatives in the capital are better than those working outside of London. That’s not the case in my experience.

The suggestion from Nottingham Playhouse’s artistic director Adam Penford – again, an entirely well-meaning intervention – that regional theatre is “the lifeblood of the industry” and a training ground for performers, also plays to the idea that working in regional theatre is merely a staging post for actors, directors and writers who have London in their sights.

It unwittingly suggests that regional audiences are just a test-bed for those on their way to somewhere better, and seems guaranteed to make an out-of-London audience a bit miffed. The danger of Penford’s argument is audiences believing they’re basically getting a preview of someone’s glittering career somewhere else might expect cut-price preview prices. As playwright Simon Stephens has observed, regional audiences want and deserve work that is challenging, just as London audiences do.

The win for Scarborough as best supporting actor – and Nottingham Playhouse for  its revival of The Madness of George III [1], which starred Mark Gatiss – in the recent  WhatsOnStage Awards is testament to the fact that star casting increases the visibility of  theatre happening outside of London.

The Madness of George III starring Mark Gatiss review at Nottingham Playhouse – ‘Gatiss rises to the challenge’ [1]

It is a problem that faces all artists living beyond the M25. I know brilliant artists making work in the Midlands, Scotland and Wales, but it’s often only when they are programmed in London that they receive the acclaim they deserve from critics, casting directors, programmers and producers. London provides a validation that is hard to ignore – and who can blame artists for wanting it?

The real test of a regional theatre is not whether its productions are beamed across the country via NT Live – as was the, somewhat exceptional, case with The Madness of George III – nor how many awards are showered upon it, although of course it’s always nice to have something other than dust on your mantlepiece.

No, the real test of a theatre is how embedded it is in its local community and how much it uses its own clout and resources in supporting the local cultural ecology. That means employing local actors, directors, writers, designers and theatremakers who have been able to put down roots and be involved in local community life. That is worth far more than a star with thousands of Instagram followers.

There is a place for star casting in regional theatre just as there is in the West End, although if any more TV or movie stars want their shot at Hamlet they should do it outside London. Let them get on the train rather than expecting out-of-London audiences to get on a train to see them. All power to Penford for enticing Gatiss to Nottingham and to Gatiss for going.

But the days should be – and largely are – long gone when regional theatres saw themselves as the most northerly or south-westerly outpost of London. The real lifeblood of any regional theatre resides in the local artists who root the organisation in the place.

‘More well-known actors should commit to work outside London’

I’d like to see more regional theatres appointing associate artists, such as Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, who are not just a box office draw but are genuinely involved both in the artistic and community life of the theatre and the city.

Kneehigh’s reputation has grown not despite the fact it is based in Cornwall, but because of it. Forced Entertainment may have initially based itself in Sheffield for practical reasons, but although it tours nationally and internationally, it is part of the cultural life of the city, and the city is undeniably part of its work.

Where I think Adrian Scarborough has a good point is on touring. More well-known actors – wherever they live – should commit to working away from the capital. Of course, often it’s not actors but their agents who are unwilling for them to be out of town for any period, concerned their clients will lose  visibility or a lucrative job.

Everyone has to make a living, but many could learn from Ian McKellen, who is celebrating his 80th birthday by embarking on a nationwide tour of more than 80 UK venues. Now there’s an actor who knows about giving something back to the audiences who have supported him throughout his long and  distinguished career – wherever they live.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner [2]

Adam Penford: ‘It’s hard to convince stars to leave London, but there’s a way’ [3]